Follow @jack_ganssle

The logo for The Embedded Muse For novel ideas about building embedded systems (both hardware and firmware), join the 25,000+ engineers who subscribe to The Embedded Muse, a free biweekly newsletter. The Muse has no hype, no vendor PR. It takes just a few seconds (just enter your email, which is shared with absolutely no one) to subscribe.

By Jack Ganssle

Over-optimizing

Published 3/07/02

One of the hot new technologies that may shape the next few years is that of RFID - Radio Frequency Identification. Cheap smart tags can be implanted in products and people; a scanner then uniquely identifies the goody or the body. I recently wrote about my fears of the loss of privacy this technology may bring (http://embedded.com/story/OEG20020222S0073). But privacy issues may be the smallest of the threats this and similar technologies will bring.

Advocates believe the cost of these devices will fall to the low tens-of-cents, at which point they become a viable alternative to bar codes. At that point many or even most consumer products will have an embedded RFID device. This will change inventory management: just turn on the electromagnetic field and an entire store will become alive with products identifying themselves to the master database.

It will also eliminate check-out lines. Load your grocery cart with the usual two week mound of supplies. You won't place the products on a belt for manual scanning; instead, just push the entire cart out the front door on the way to your car. In a second a portal-mounted scanner identifies every box of cereal, each can of soup, and the store debits your account.

Products sold by weight (veggies for instance) will no doubt now be plastic wrapped with an embedded RFID device. Today, the butcher wraps custom cuts of meat in plastic with a scale-generated bar code; surely this will morph to an embedded RFID tag.

Long checkout lines will vanish, as will the hassle of putting things onto the belt. No waiting for the exasperating person in front of you to dig through her purse looking for a wallet, slowly write out a check, and then apparently balance the account as people in line seethe.

It offers a pretty awesome benefits for the stores, as well. Checkout people will be history, saving lots of money. No doubt the magic of competition means prices will decline for us consumers as well. The entire model of capitalism says this evolution is both inevitable and "good".

Think of the lost jobs.

Randy lives a few boats down from me. Drafted right out of high school he was sent to Vietnam, wounded, and returned older than the rest of his contemporaries. Early marriage and the surprisingly quick arrival of children kept him busy feeding the family. Little money made college an impossible dream; his few skills kept him employed but always on the margins of the middle-class.

He's 54 now. Too old to go back to college, too feeble from a bout with colon cancer to make huge life changes. The kids grew and left home as did the wife. He gets by. Needing little, no car, few responsibilities now, he still must take care of himself. He's a minimum wage grocery checker at the Safeway.

What happens to the millions of Randys as our amazing technologies eliminates their jobs? The forces of economics means we embedded developers will be paid to optimize systems and processes to minimize costs. Fierce competition eliminates compassionate concerns - when we replace a person with a computer our business is more likely to survive. It's the pitiless calculus of capitalism.

I fear the world will split into two camps: the more or less unemployable and those, like us, possessed of tremendous educations and blessed with high IQs who have the decent jobs.

Some suggest job-training will turn the underprivileged into information workers. Sure - education will save some, but not all and I suspect not most. We do not all share equal intelligence and abilities.

Perhaps this sounds like I'm advocating socialism. No, I think capitalism has brought us unimaginable benefits. Surely something, though, will have to change, as the trend is disturbing. I don't think we can, or should, return to a simpler life, but we must think deeply and compassionately about what is coming.

I worry for the future my kids will inherit. And once in a while I wake at night, guilty that we embedded developers are the inventors of job-displacing products.

What do you think? Should we worry about the implications of our optimized products that dislocate people?